Using NGO data to understand marginalization, stigma and empowerment: the case of USHA multi-purpose cooperative in Kolkata

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: Business School


The project will contribute, both conceptually and empirically, to understanding the link between poverty, marginalisation and stigma on the one hand, and economic and health outcomes, on the other. There are two prongs to the project.
First, working in collaboration with USHA Multipurpose Cooperative, it will construct a unique panel data set of 10,000+ sex workers in Kolkata, India by merging three existing data sets containing, respectively, financial information (savings accounts, loans obtained and repayment history of individual sex workers), health related data in 9 intervention sites in Kolkata alone (health seeking behaviour, regular check-ups, condom use, findings of the clinical examination and treatment received, lab investigations data on HIV and sexually transmitted diseases), (iii) contextual data collected through Self-regulatory Board [SRB] for all new entrants in sex work (including age [determined by Radiological examination], report of clinical examination, socio economic status, family background, reasons for choosing sex work and any underlying coercion forcing the entrant to choose sex work etc) and exposure to training provided by USHA. This novel data set will be used to examine how financial and health behaviour correlate with each other, how initial conditions (age, variations initial socio-economic status, family back ground, exposure to coercion) matters for the financial and health outcomes of sex workers over time. It will also enable an examination of the of how the contracts used by sex workers impact on their welfare.
Being poor or marginalized often brings with it considerable stigma, which can greatly distort a person's self-image, resulting in a 'spoiled identity' (Goffman, 1963). As this author notes in his classic work on stigma, "[t]hose who have dealings with [the stigmatized individual] fail to accord him respect and regard ...; he echoes this denial by finding that some of his own attributes warrant it". In a randomized control trial (Ghosal et. al. 2019), the impact of a psychological intervention, "dreambuilding", pioneered by Durbar (the sex worker's collective which set up USHA) was evaluated. It was found that exposure to dream building resulted in significant improvements in participants' self-image, as well as their savings and preventive health choices. Additionally, changes in savings and health behaviour persist up to 15 and 21 months later respectively. In work partially funded by a IAA GCRF NGO DATA AWARD (ES/S501323/1), a data set for a sample for a sample of 600 women (300 of whom had been exposed to some form of dream building and 300 who hadn't) USHA systematically gathered existing records, going back to the past three years (after the initial fieldwork), of women belonging to the community of sex workers in Kolkata and elsewhere in West Bengal with a focus qualitative and quantitative evidence relating to outcomes by linking their existing data sets (the number of women exposed to dream building workshops, impact on psychological outcomes, what the women have done subsequently in terms of savings, housing, educational choices for their children, participation in various collective activities etc). The second prong of the project will, via novel quantitative modelling, merge and (re)analyse these two sets, together with the novel panel data set, to quantify the effects of exposure to dreambuilding on the welfare of sex workers over time

Planned Impact

By setting out to examine in a systematic way how, and why, existing entrenched pattern of marginalisation and stigma affects sex workers, we aim to have a major we aim to impact on policy by strengthening the normative argument for ensuring empowerment of intended beneficiaries in the development process. In Kolkata, the project will support the creation a bespoke, unique and novel longitudinal data set of approximately 10,000 sex workers merging data relating to savings, health and civic participation. Our research results in relation to "dream building" will be directly relevant to USHA in evaluating the effectiveness, design and implementation of a key part of their own intervention strategy in relation to groups of marginalized, urban poor in India. By providing systematic evidence on how health, savings and civic participation data correlate with each other, we hope to have an impact on both governments and NGOs working on empowerment of marginalized groups of women working in informal sector occupations in urban India and elsewhere (e.g. Malawi and Vietnam).
We will hold an early stage stakeholder workshop in Kolkata that will set out the aims of the project, ground it in the local context, facilitate the potential co-production of knowledge and provide a 'reality check'. Small-scale dedicated workshops specifically aimed at sex workers in Kolkata will allow us to disseminate feedback and awareness messages in real time. We anticipate that the dataset generated by our research will be of interest to that focus on poverty reduction in hard to reach, marginalised and stigmatised urban women working in the informal sector by offering guidance for promising practices.
The empirical component of the project will yield its own, a new longitudinal panel of approximately 10,000 sex workers dataset containing financial information, health outcomes of sex workers, and markers of civic participation.
The new dataset will form the basis of a targeted policy briefing, co-authored with Dr. Jana, conducted in English, as well as in the local language of Bengali in Kolkata. There will be a dedicated website which, in addition to helping us to disseminate the outputs of our project and the proposed workshop, will aid in communication and coordinating with our partner. The active collaboration of USHA and Dr. Jana in the research process (starting from co-design of the research to co-authoring of academic and policy documents) will aid in the dissemination of the results.
Finally, while local context clearly matters, we believe the project will be useful to governments, NGOs and aid agencies in other countries. At the end of our project, we will produce a policy report, integrating research results, for dissemination to a broader audience of organizations that could benefit from our insights. An end-of-project workshop will be held in Kolkata involving USHA, other Kolkata, India, Vietnam and Malawi based NGOs and officials from the West Bengal and Indian Government to provide feedback and facilitate translation of project findings into policy recommendations. Finally, through presentations at the World Bank and, where possible, USAID, DFID and forums in which NGO leaders participate, we will disseminate the results to those engaged in these issues in other countries.


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Ghosal, S. (2021) Sex workers, stigma and self-image: evidence from Kolkata brothels in Review of Economics and Statistics

Description Collaborations 
Organisation Multi-Duti Manufacturing
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Linking data sets, analysing data.
Collaborator Contribution data sets
Impact Ghosal, S., S. Jana, A. Mani, S. Mitra, S. Roy"Sex workers, stigma and self-image: evidence from Kolkata brothels", Review of Economics and Statistics,
Start Year 2019